Zucchini for Israel

Myths and Misconceptions Series

The Jewish Family Identity Forum with Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer

Candace R. Kwiatek
Candace R. Kwiatek

I never liked zucchini until I tasted my mother-in-law’s version combining summer squash with sautéed onions, tomato paste, a bit of salt, and a pinch of sugar.

The recipe sounds simple, but it took me quite a number of tries to get the proportions right. I had a tendency to add too much tomato paste, figuring if a little is good then more is better. It’s not: the result is sour and heavy. Or I’d substitute tomato sauce for the paste, resulting in a thin, wishy-washy concoction. Or I’d omit the salt or sugar altogether, leaving the flavor flat and unsatisfying.

Who knew that my recipe trials echoed a biblical message?

In Deuteronomy we read: “You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you.”

Commentators offer a number of scholarly interpretations of this passage, but I think it means exactly what it says, and it’s the same overall recipe as that for making perfect stewed zucchini: don’t add more, don’t substitute, and don’t leave anything out.

Don’t add more. We cannot increase the number of festivals on the calendar, add an 11th commandment, expand the qualities defining kosher fish, or raise the minimum tzedakah obligation above 10 percent.

That seems relatively straightforward until we try to account for laws such as separating meat and milk dishes, obligations like lighting Chanukah candles, and traditions that include the Diaspora’s second, extra day of the holidays.

While most traditional Jews consider these and other similar rabbinic laws obligatory, they aren’t the main ingredients; they are always subservient to Torah law.

Instead, consider them to be spices, to be added necessarily but sparingly for flavor.

Don’t substitute. The classic example is shopping or golfing on Shabbat in place of more traditional pursuits, justified by claiming these behaviors are restful and thus in keeping with the idea of remembering and keeping Shabbat.

Let’s be honest, though. What we are really doing is watering down Shabbat to rest, relaxation, and recreation.

Leaving aside all the rabbinic rules about the seventh day, the Bible’s Shabbat really means “desisting from creating” or “reflecting,” as in musing.

At Sinai we are commanded to make the Sabbath day holy — separate from the everyday and the earthly — holiness being the authentic ingredient.

In Deuteronomy we are told it is to be a “Sabbath for God,” in cooking terms a “meal fit for a King.”

We can, of course, choose to make substitutions for these ingredients — but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking we will end up with the authentic recipe.

Don’t subtract. The 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, the document of Classical Reform Judaism, called for the rejection of Jewish ritual laws and concepts — such as kashrut, Zionism, and chosenness — while maintaining its ethical and moral laws.

Just more than 100 years later, Reform Judaism was calling for renewed attention to “sacred obligations,” recognition of “Jewish peoplehood,” and endorsement of aliyah, immigration to Israel.

While liberal and traditional perspectives on the details of these issues differ markedly, the lesson is clear: as the song says, “The world stands on three things: Torah, avodah (ritual and prayer), and gemilut hasadim (ethical behavior).”

It’s a recipe that works when all the ingredients are in place: for the world, for Judaism, and for the individual.

How can we apply Moses’ caution in our own lives? Commentator Dennis Prager explains, “Don’t be an extremist.” It’s tempting to add or subtract from God’s laws, and it’s done in every faith, he notes.

Traditionalists are tempted to expand laws, such as the move to no mixed dancing or more stringent kashrut standards.

Liberals are tempted to drop the ritual laws, claiming they are outdated and cumbersome, in favor of ethical obligations alone.

Our challenge is to find the path of moderation. Certainly, we’ve seen the consequences of extremism, how it can actually desecrate God’s image — by claiming the right to murder non-believers, as some fundamentalists claim today; or by encouraging peace at any cost, as pacifists promote, both of which are complicit in the furtherance of evil.

It’s easy to be extreme – everything is either black or white, and the decisions are clear.

What isn’t easy is being moderate, a challenge captured in the name Israel meaning “struggle with God.”

Built upon the theme of moderation, the Torah is a guide: kings do not have absolute power. Divorce is allowed. Kashrut allows some creatures as food and not others. An indentured servant has to be treated humanely. Land is returned to its original owner in the Jubilee (50th) year. The sacrifices for festivals or sins were limited and clearly defined.

A prospective convert needs to be taught only a few of the key laws before being accepted. Tzedakah is generally limited to 10 percent.

The Torah is the Jewish recipe for making good individuals and good societies. It’s like zucchini for Israel. Just as Moses cautions, don’t add more ingredients. Don’t substitute if you want the full flavor. And don’t leave anything out if you want a successful end result.

Family Discussion: In what arena is moderation a big struggle for you? What recipe could you imagine as an analogy for guiding your pursuit of moderation in your own life?


Literature to share

The Lion Seeker by Kenneth Bonert: Winner of the National Jewish Book Award, this lengthy saga about a Jewish refugee family in South Africa in the 1930s is not for the faint of heart. Apartheid South Africa comes alive with all its prejudices and violence and cultural clashes, forming the backdrop for Lithuanian pogroms, immigrant struggles, upward mobility, and strife in the Helger family. In a class of its own in both topic and structure, this novel is gripping, intelligent, and true to the Jewish South African experience.

Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah by Susan L. Roth: Delightfully illustrated by colorful torn-paper collages, this familiar song is acted out by a family of mice. Suitable for preschool and primary ages, the words are few and the pictures encourage discussion. The musical score appears at the back of the book.

To read the complete November 2014 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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